Sausage pizza, chocolate muffins, and cinnamon rolls are the typical breakfasts served at the South Metro public school where I teach kindergarten. The lunch menu often features hamburgers, beefy nachos, and macaroni and cheese. Having worked in Twin Cities classrooms for nearly a decade, I know my current school’s meals are not unique. Cheap and highly processed foods take center stage in most of Minnesota’s school meal programs.
Meanwhile, diet-related death and disease are at an all-time high. Powered by increased consumption of processed sugars and meats, obesity rates have doubled among adults, tripled among children and quadrupled among adolescents since 1988, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These numbers are even more staggering for low-income children and kids of color. Sadly, health problems and medical expenses related to poor nutrition can last a lifetime.
School meals can be a part of the solution. When only one in three children get the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day, schools can fight back with plant power on their plates. But for the most part, they’re not. We exist in a food system that prioritizes profits over public health, even when it comes to our children. And whether we intend it or not, our school lunches are quietly educating our kids about what healthy and balanced meals look like.
Standards raised, but schools struggle to meet them
Created by Congress in 1946, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides cash subsidies and other support to schools to provide meals for students. Schools that participate must meet federal nutritional standards and offer free and reduced price meals to qualifying students. The NSLP has evolved with the help of new legislation like the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). Based on expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, the HHFKA raised the nutritional standards for school lunches.
Still, many schools have struggled to implement the new standards, and some organizations are taking matters into their own hands. Forward Food, a program of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), collaborates with food service directors, chefs, and dietitians to support schools in implementing more plant-based options. Additionally, Meatless Monday initiatives have sprouted up across the country, from Los Angeles to New York City, making more room for fruits and vegetables on students’ plates.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the pilot program at 15 Brooklyn schools last year. “Even if you had a bacon, egg and cheese this morning, you still should want to see more and more of our diets go to a plant-based approach,” De Blasio said. The project’s leadership team cited sustainability as another reason to increase consumption of plant-based foods.
A handy tool for parents
Parents, teachers, alumni, and even community members have an important role to play when it comes to school nutrition. A new Kansas-based nonprofit called Balanced offers a quick, free online assessment that can help hold schools, hospitals, and worksites accountable to the minimum federal dietary guidelines. Simply grab your institution’s menu, plug in the required information at balanced.org, and Balanced will generate your scorecard. Community members around the country are using this tool to prompt action at their schools. If your institution scores poorly, consider sharing that information with your food service director. You might also offer HSUS’ affordable, kid-tested and NSLP-compliant recipes as a resource for moving forward.
Locally, a project called Wholesome Minnesota launched earlier this year to support community members in advocating for more healthy foods at their dining institutions. Whether it’s a school, hospital, faith community, restaurant, or worksite, almost all of us frequent a place that serves food; this initiative empowers everyday people with the tools they need to spark change at the institutions they’re connected to. Wholesome Minnesota, Forward Food, and the Humane Society of the United States – Minnesota will co-host their second free and open-to-the-public advocacy training on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 1-3 p.m. at the University of Minnesota. Participants will hear inspiring success stories, learn practical tips, and gather helpful resources. Details and preregistration are available at exploreveg.org/events.
Nearly 1 million children will attend Minnesota schools this fall. On their trays, they will find many of the foods most closely associated with the leading causes of disease and premature death. As for the new group of bright-eyed 5-year-olds who are sitting in front of me for the first time this week, I think they deserve better. By holding our schools accountable to a higher standard, we can transform the future for the next generation.
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